The 10 Best Hacking, Coding, Computing Games

Three weeks ago the UK telecoms provider TalkTalk was hacked, allegedly by a band of teenagers, compromising some 157,000 users details. This week hacktivist group Anonymous released personal details of hundreds of members of the Ku Klux Klan. And now the UK government wants a record of all the websites you’ve visited to be stored for 12 months, to be accessed at the discretion of police and security services. Clearly, we already live in a constantly evolving cyberpunk dystopia. But if this Gibsonist world is just too REAL for you, we have put together the ten best videogames about hacking, programming and computing so you can escape into meta-dystopia. Which I’m sure is a much better place.

10. Enter the Matrix

[Official site (archived)]

Wait! Hear me out! They get better. I know that 2003’s Enter the Matrix was mostly a janky Max Payne clone meant to cash in on the release of the tepid Matrix Reloaded, but it also housed an intriguing terminal-based mini-mystery. By selecting ‘Hacking’ from the main menu, it allowed you to explore unknown computer directories and uncover a trail of puzzles, wav files, blueprints and messages in glowing green font. Your ultimate reward for puzzling through all these commands, filepaths and passwords? An audio message from Keanu Reeves himself! Wow.

Okay. Even if this was mostly an avenue for the developer to hide concept art, Easter eggs, FMV clips and cheat codes for the player to uncover, it was arguably the most interesting thing about the game. And in terms of history I would also argue that it helped keep the flame alight for hacking sims, as well as introduce some players to the underrepresented genre, people who would otherwise only be interested in the bullet-time and machine guns of the lobby scene.

Notes: A press release in April, 2003 boasted that the game was “a revolution in interactive entertainment”, proving that, while computers may have changed dramatically in the intervening decade, marketing nonsense has not.

9. System 15000

[Wikipedia entry]

The year is 1984. Apple has released the first Mac, crack cocaine is introduced to the US and a strange man in an eye patch is wandering around Afghanistan attaching air balloons to unsuspecting goats. But something else has arrived more quietly. System 15000 has been released. It is the first “hacking game”.

The interface is a simple command prompt replicating a modem and bulletin board system. Hot on the heels of the movie WarGames (read: one year afterwards) the game replicates the feeling of Matthew Broderick as he stumbled his way from connection to connection trying to guess the correct password for these mysterious servers he finds. Except you are not simply exploring. You’re trying to hack into a bank account and transfer stolen funds back to the rightful owner.

By today’s standards it is a minimalist and cranky passcode-guessing adventure. But it was also the first real hacking sim, where the very screen you used was the intended stage. The fact it has become dated only makes the replication of BBS screens even more superb.

Notes: The principle creator of System 15000 was a British musician called Lee Kristofferson. The game became so popular with a NATO base in Osnabrück, Germany, that the staff got in touch with him to ask for help. In an interview with Sinclair User, Kristofferson described a phone conversation with the NATO men. When he tried to explain cracking the game’s codes, he paused. “I thought, what if the phone is bugged? MI5 will boot the door in and I’ll get arrested and become a star.”

8. Hacker

[Wikipedia entry]

Fast forward one more year. It is now 1985. Microsoft has revealed the first version of Windows, the wreck of the Titanic has finally been discovered and a delicious soft drink called ‘New Coke’ has just been released. What a wondrous time to be alive. And something else has just come out. The Amiga. One of the games? Something called “Hacker”.

Play Hacker today (which you can do for free on the Internet archive) and you’ll probably reel back in horror and desperately swallow your iPhone to keep yourself feeling modern. Most of the game is a trial and error sojourn through screens of robot blueprints, subterranean tunnels and world maps, as you try to uncover the motives of the mysterious Magma Ltd. An early memo gives you a clue: “…unlimited energy source,” it reads, “and world domination”.

Very much a product of its time, Hacker was nevertheless a success. It sold more than 50,000 copies and was Activision’s third bestselling game at the time, only surpassed by Ghostbusters and GBA Basketball Championship: Two on Two. And are either of those games in this list? NO.

Notes: A Compute! magazine review of the game wrote: “That’s the great appeal of Hacker, the feeling that you’re doing something wrong and might get caught. Who knows, the FBI might even show up at your door and confiscate your computer.” This is a feeling that hacking games would seek to replicate right up to the present day.

7. Minecraft

[official site]

I’m sorry. I tried to think of a good reason not to include Minecraft on the list. It’s a survival  game. It’s about punching trees. It has infected millions of innocent children. But the more I tried the harder it became to disregard all the tinkering, toying and creativity that has gone into Mojang’s indie luvvie-turned-superstar. First, people started making 16-bit computers inside the game, then they made huge circuit board structures with RAM, capable of division, then they made music box landscapes that could play whole songs, then they made older Notch games inside the game, then they made WHOLE DESKTOPS with functioning keyboards, then hard drives to save all their hard work to, and then, because you need a place to put all these machines, they made the entirety of Denmark. Even RPS got in on the action, with RPS contributor and living Intelligence Quotient Duncan Geere giving readers a running lesson in code using the game as a teaching tool.

I can understand if some people believe Minecraft is less a hacking or programming game and more of a game for hackers and programmers. But it’s clear from the above examples that the latter is good enough for the purposes of this list. So there you go.

Notes: Of course, Minecraft isn’t a game for all hackers. In June 2011, the hacker group LulzSec brought down the game’s servers as part of a spate of attacks on videogame companies. Other victims included Eve Online, Bethesda, Sony, Nintendo and The Escapist.

6. TIS-100

[official site]

Oh god, get ready for your brain to hurt. TIS-100 is marketed as “the assembly language programming game you never asked for” and while I normally spit on all marketing slogans, I cannot help but nod approvingly at this one. While any Zachtronics game (Infinifactory, SpaceChem) could arguably be called a hacking game using the excuse that they all let you tinker with things until your frontal lobes explode, TIS-100 is the most transparently logicky of the lot.

Here you have found a mysterious old computer from the 70s in your late uncle’s possessions. You can see he was playing with it and trying to figure out what it is. Now, it’s up to you. In its most basic sense, you have to get numbers to pass through the machine from point A to point B, while achieving the “goals” of each level (for example, make the positive number pop out first, then the negative). To do this, you are given a list of commands stated in an opaque user manual. The game encourages you to print this manual in paper form. It is covered in your uncle’s annotations and highlighter marks, offering clues about the machine’s nature.

It’s also a mind-crushing game of logic and mathematics. Mathematics that ought to be obvious and basic yet still somehow gives you trouble. But even if you struggle through, you can still appreciate the cleverness of it all, the mechanical clicks and whirs, the blinking numbers ticking through the machine. Completing an early level often has you standing back, feeling like you’ve just cracked the Enigma code, like you’ve created something as intricate and precise as a pocket watch. Then you go on YouTube, and see the madness that awaits.

Notes: Zach of Zachtronics is so adept at hacking electronics and code that it is rumoured he was secretly developed in a government workshop somewhere. Here he is making a programmable typewriter, and here playing with the indecipherable guts of a crappy old Star Wars game he loved as a child.

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55 Comments

  1. Jay Load says:

    I’ve never meta-dystopia I didn’t like. :)

  2. Dross says:

    What about Screeps? (link to screeps.com)

  3. daphne says:

    Any game that ranks above Uplink on the hacker fantasy scale deserves a look, if not agreement. Thanks for the feature.

  4. orionite says:

    There are some pretty cool old-school and more modern versions, as well, eg. RoboWar) of programming games. I fondly remember fiddling with AT-Robots and learning about different AI strategies from other robot developers.

    • kalzekdor says:

      RoboWar may very well have been what got me into AI. I have fond memories of that game…

      One time I programmed a bot that would sneak around behind other bots, access their programming port, and dump a huge load of viral code turning them into allies. Who would then go do the same to other bots…

      • kalzekdor says:

        There was another game, but I can’t remember what it was called. You made an assembly program, which was loaded into a memory table at some point. Then somebody else’s program was loaded at the other end of the table. The goal was to control the most memory blocks after n instructions, with both programs competing. I had one program that left little loop traps for enemy code, but that my program knew to avoid.

        • wu wei says:

          I believe what you’re thinking of is Core War.

          • kalzekdor says:

            Yep, that’s it! Reading the strategy section of that article, I apparently made a hybrid Bomber/Vampire. Normal Bombers would terminate enemy threads, but mine would trap them in loops, slowing down the rest of the enemy threads.

  5. thelastdonut says:

    I hadn’t heard of a lot of these. At the very least I need to check out a few of these top picks

    • Llewyn says:

      Duskers in particular had passed me by completely – looks like Marsh covered it while I was in pre-holiday crunch mode – and seems very appealing.

  6. Tacroy says:

    Else Heart.Break() is a little bit disappointing because Sebastian (the main character) has his own arc, and he’s going through it come hell or high water.

    I’m decent at programming, so the second I got my hands on a modifier Seb essentially became an all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipresent deity. Yet his dialog never actually reflected any of that.

    I’m still going to finish the game though, right after I finish this quicksort implementation to make the list of all people easier to read…

    • jenkins says:

      Failed my HTML roll. Of course I was speaking of telehack.

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      This is amazing. I had heard of the STARWARS thing before through telnet, but I didn’t realise it was housed within this huge simulation!

    • sincarne says:

      Came here to say exactly that. There’s currently a campaign underway to to unseat the user who has root on the majority of the systems out there, which is a fun emergent game type thingy. The myriad little BASIC games and programs, and classic IF works you can uncover on different systems are fun, too.

  7. anHorse says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the suggestion that Hacknet is a better hacking game than uplink however when I played Hacknet it just left me really wanting to play uplink again. It never got over that for me.

  8. Yserbius says:

    Not sure if it qualifies as a “hacking” game, but Robot Odyssey must be included on any list of programming games. I didn’t discover it until the 90s, but I must say it’s really an amazing game.

  9. Cinek says:

    As someone working in the industry: There’s only one game about hacking – Uplink. Nothing else was nearly as good, involving and enjoyable to play.

    The worst game ever about hacking… Hacker Evolution? That would certainly be one of the candidate. I started to play it in a very optimistic mood, but after 5 minutes I had to force myself playing that piece of c***. In total I made an hour into that – never again.

    ps. Including minecraft in that list is like including a tissue and a pencil. Both can be used to make some fun stuff, but both are torturous waste of time.

  10. Scrobbs says:

    vulnhub.com

    Best hacking game out there. Plus you learn :P

  11. Laurentius says:

    I simply don’t belive you played Uplink. Your description of the game looks like something taken from someone else’s description. Yes, it is accurate to a degree but it’s not what makes Uplink great. Uplink is a bit like Championship Manager/Footbal Manager but instead of Premiership you are playing hacker league. It’s working on its own but you can interfere. Sure storyline missions are scripted but the rest of the game is not. Uplink is in just different league then the rest of these games.

  12. quietone says:

    Paradroid is not on this list? Heathens.

  13. ChrisGWaine says:

    I think Core War deserves some kind of mention.

  14. HyperNexus says:

    Hacknet was one of the most criminally overlooked games I can think of
    According to SteamSpy over 75,000 users own Hacknet. Compare that to else Heart.break() which has just over 5000 users. Hacknet is hardly a game that has been overlooked.

  15. Person of Interest says:

    If you know your way around a computer, there are a wide variety of capture the flag games and competitions that have been made available to play at your own pace. Although the competitions are aimed at well-practiced programmers, there are many CTF’s that are meant to entertain and educate.

    To name one: Microcorruption, in which you hack simulated electronic locks to steal the goodies hidden behind them, and learn about assembly language and debugging in the process.

  16. aoanla says:

    As well as the other stuff mentioned here, I’m a bit surprised not to see The Magic Circle here. Surely it’s about hacking in precisely the way that else:Heart.Break() is, and I’m pretty sure RPS quite liked it at the time…

  17. oueddy says:

    Given the scope of the games in this list, what about transistor? Its pretty criminal to put uplink before hacknet given how polished the former is to the latter and how much the latter owes it.

    Correct WipEout track to use

  18. skyorrichegg says:

    I’ve been watching this game, “Same Sun, Different Moon” a bit through development: link to gamejolt.com The guy describes it as a cross between Digital: A Love Story and Uplink. But I found it interesting because it is a puzzle game and I enjoyed that aspect of it but more interestingly it explores a side of hacking that is either abstracted or pretty much ignored in a lot of these hacking games: the network side of things. One of the earlier things I had to do was change my VLAN to be able to navigate to different parts of the network.

  19. Nixitur says:

    I found Hacknet extremely disappointing. It’s the corridor shooter of hacking games, with none of the open and connected world of Uplink.
    Heard really good things about else Heart.Break(), though, so I’m pretty excited to give that a try. Especially since SPRAK is an actual programming language. For example, I’ve heard that somebody had written a program for a key that tries out all key codes, essentially turning it into the most amazing lockpick.
    That’s not something that’s ever mentioned in the game. You are just encouraged to experiment. It is this “Hack everything, do whatever you want and see what happens.” attitude that I loved about Uplink, except else Heart.Break() has actual programming.

    • Nixitur says:

      Oh, by the way, you included Quadrilateral Cowboy, a game that isn’t even out yet, but not Hack ‘n’ Slash, a game that allows you to rewrite and mess around with big parts of the game?
      Want to rewrite the enemies to heal you instead? You can do that.
      Want a screen transition to lead you to an area that is actually unused in the main game? Sure.
      Want to change the height and width of the collision box of some iron bars to 0, so that you can walk right through them? Absolutely.

      It wasn’t super well received, I think, but I really liked it. The variety of how you can change things isn’t quite as high as in else Heart.Break(), but the scope is much larger, allowing you to not only hack enemies or items, but even entire rooms.

      • Nixitur says:

        Whoops, I thought page 3 was honorable mentions. Somehow skipped the line about them solely being upcoming games.
        Still, Hack ‘n’ Slash deserves a spot on this list. It’s certainly a better hacking game than Enter The Matrix.

    • demicanadian says:

      I bought Hacknet the moment I found out about it and well… it was criminally overrated game.
      It was just a hacking minigame the game: “Oh, you need to type >hack very fast. Now this will be tricky, you need to type >hack and >crack even faster, in any order. You ready for the impossible task? Type >hack then >crack, in that order. Very fast.”
      I was so angry to find out GOG return don’t work the steam way (you get monnies back if the game does not work for you, but not because you hate it)

  20. ansionnach says:

    I liked the hacking in System Shock with its tense music, time limit… and it’s in Virtual Reality. What else could you want? Finale to that game is great!

  21. Nereus says:

    So, I have no interest in learning to code in a fictional language, as I would quite like to learn one of the higher level languages (I’m eyeing Python with some mix of fear and resignation). For somebody with no real code experience except for statistical computing packages, would any of these actually teach me anything?

    I ask because while I enjoy games I’d rather not get a weird mix of logic puzzles instead of something genuinely educational or really fun (for a non-programmer that is).

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      Don’t know a lot of these titles well enough to comment, though I’d say TIS-100 bears some similarity to assembly language – not so much that it would be helpful on the level of syntax, but it is probably good practice for getting your head in the space of working in very small steps and amongst a sometimes odd and arbitrary set of constraints if you are thinking of doing some low-level coding. Don’t know that it would be too useful for high-level language learning, except perhaps to make you appreciate how easy it is to do the stuff that was tricky in TIS.

      There is no reason to fear Python! It is a welcoming warm bath of a language.

    • Nixitur says:

      So, you want a game that teaches you actual programming, but doesn’t include actual programming? That’s a bit of an odd request and I’m not sure whether it can be fulfilled.
      Really, most of the fictional languages aren’t very far removed from actual high-level programming languages. From what I’ve heard, SPRAK, the language of else Heart.Break(), is fairly fully featured, enough so that people were able to write games with it. I have no idea how good the game is at explaining it, though.

      As for actual programming languages to learn, I personally recommend Java. Yes, many professionals will tell you that Java is not a great language (which is true), but it’s very strict typing is a useful crutch for learning what the hell is going on without drowning you in memory management madness like C and company.
      I gave Python several shots, but I find the documentation to be nigh unreadable with everything even vaguely related thrown onto one page and stuff all the way at the bottom of a page referring to stuff all the way at the top with no links or anything, pretty much forcing you to either constantly jump back and forth on a huge page or to read it from top to bottom when what you actually wanted to use is somewhere further down.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Screeps uses JavaScript or (as they point out) anything that can be compiled to JavaScript, which includes regular Java and Python (and practically everything else).

      I don’t know how much effort might be involved in getting a Python-to-JS compiler working; I would recommend giving the game a try in JS to see if you like it, then deciding if you want to switch to something else.

    • kalzekdor says:

      Programming is as much a mode of thinking as it is the minutiae of syntax. One of the pitfalls new programmers often fall into is they get too bogged down with syntax that they miss the higher level concepts. They’ll think in terms like “Ok, I need to type for, then what I want to call this, so thing, then in, and that variable, was stuff. Then a colon. Now total += thing.” Whereas someone who has been around a while would think “Iterate over stuff and add to a total.”

      When I program the language is the last step in the process. Usually something like:
      1. Problem statement
      2. Conceptual solution
      3. Notes about solution. (Pen and paper are the greatest tools a programmer has.)
      4. Revisit solution based on information revealed by notes.
      5. System design – Where this code will live, what kind of signature will it have, rough execution flow diagram.
      6. Code implementation.

      I don’t worry about syntax or language until that very last step. Knowing how to code something is the easy part. Knowing what to code, and why, that’s tricky. It takes a lot of experience.

      So, don’t worry too much about whether these programming games are using a “real” language. If you can learn about the concepts, that’s more than enough.

      The best programming tutorials I’ve seen don’t have any sort of “code”, just visual diagrams and explanations.

    • Me says:

      Python is a great language, and certainly one of the easiest to pick up. However, the official tutorial is more aimed at programmers who are new to python, rather than people who are new to programming. There are plenty of unofficial tutorials and books, though, including a few interactive ones on the web. Note that a major backwards-incompatible version of the language, python 3, was released a few years ago. It’s largely the same, but a few bits of basic syntax have changed, and lots of new features added. I would learn python 3 if you can, though lots of people have been very slow to make the switch.

      Once you’ve got a grip of the basics, there are a few games knocking around in which you actually code in a real programming language – for python, look at the Python Challenge or Codingame, for example. The more mainstream programming games, like TIS-100 or Human Resource Machine, usually revolve around a fictional low-level language. They do help to give you an understanding of how high-level code is ultimately broken down and fed into the CPU, but a lot of the techniques you learn aren’t really applicable to high-level languages. They can be a lot of fun, though.

    • rmsgrey says:

      Programming is a mix of language-specific stuff (mostly vocabulary, but some algorithmic stuff) and language-independent stuff – algorithms; various high-level concepts like encapsulation or subroutines; skills in defining and breaking down a problem…

      Programming-type games generally don’t help directly with the language-specific stuff (because they usually use a custom language, or some sort of more abstract interface, rather than the specific language you might be interested in) but they often help with the transferable stuff. You won’t come out of a game knowing how to code in Python, but you may be better prepared to understand Python tutorials.

  22. Low Life says:

    Somewhere between a game and actual hacking there’s Microcorruption: link to microcorruption.com

    Basically your aim is to find vulnerabilities in a code that reads user input – you don’t modify the code itself, you only provide the single input string that breaks the code for each puzzle. You’re causing actual buffer overflows, heap corruptions etc. in code that would run on an actual CPU.

  23. nanotramp says:

    No mention of Brian Spencer’s Hacker Evolution series. Shameful.

  24. Ernesto says:

    If SpaceChem isn’t programming, I don’t know what is…

    • phlebas says:

      TIS-100 is. Don’t worry, Zach gets credit.
      If we’re talking factories, Manufactoria is even more programming (or even compsci) flavoured than Spacechem, has a nice darkish sense of humour, and is generally wonderful.

      link to pleasingfungus.com

      • Twisted says:

        Let me just say, thank you for this. It’s amazing, but not so hard as to be impossible to finish (I have one standard level to go, two of the bonus levels).

  25. unraveler says:

    No Darwinia? I’m sad ໒( •́ ∧ •̀ )७

  26. Premium User Badge

    Kirrus says:

    Having spent some time trying to love hacknet, I must admit, I basically gave up on it and started replaying Uplink. Uplink is definitely starting to show it’s age; for one thing only running at 4:3 ratios. But for sheer enjoyment of the game, I simply got bored with hacknet, it felt more like plugging modules in, an honorable, lesser, copy of Uplink. That was just me though!

  27. Amazon_warrior says:

    Oh goodness. Hacker. I remember playing that way back in the day when I were nowt but a wee slip of a lass. Never got all that far with it, though. *prods link thoughtfully* I wonder how far I’d get now I’m rather older than 8?

    Also much <3 for SpaceChem for being the logic'n'chemistry game I could play windowed while the one-year-old on my lap consumed endless iCharleston clips on Youtube. Everyone was a winner! :D

  28. LeanRight says:

    Hacknet is just a worse version of Uplink.

  29. apa says:

    I hear Watch_Dogs has even a hacking button :D

  30. Benratha says:

    Maybe an honourable mention for Human Resource Machine? It has a programming language of sorts to manipulate the contents of your in-game Inbox.

  31. Delamar says:

    I think people don’t know StreetHacker it was a really good game. A lot of bugs, but i think if it would had been update it would be one of the greatests hack games. In my opinion still is, and i played almost all of the list.